Paris Cabarets: Can We Ask for More Than the Cancan?

PARIS — There are a number of attractions that Parisians are happy to leave to tourists. These include the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées, as well as some of the city’s most popular shows: specifically, the cabarets.

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Laura Cappelle
, New York Times

PARIS — There are a number of attractions that Parisians are happy to leave to tourists. These include the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées, as well as some of the city’s most popular shows: specifically, the cabarets.

While out-of-towners flock to the Moulin Rouge, the Lido or the Crazy Horse, many of the capital’s theater buffs have never even been. The genre that was once the toast of Paris lost touch with the times in the last decades of the 20th century. Its theatrical revues remain as extravagant as ever, yet the stories they tell often feel stuck in the past.

These places still marshal impressive resources. Patrons at the spacious Lido and the Moulin Rouge can drink and dine, with high-end service, before and during two performances every night. The Moulin Rouge’s current revue, “Féerie,” is seen by around 600,000 people every year, half of them foreigners. It comes with 100 performers, 1,000 heavily sequined costumes, five pythons — and a cost of 8 million euros, or around $9.25 million.

What, however, does this buy? Today’s cabarets require viewers to suspend not just modern theatrical expectations but irony, too. Dramaturgy is, at best, threadbare; old-fashioned exoticism and sexism are par for the course. The goal — the only goal — is to dazzle, be it with feathers, jewels, acrobats or naked women.

In fairness, today’s productions are in keeping with the traditions of the genre. Although “cafés-concerts” started the trend of live entertainment alongside food and drink in the wake of the French Revolution, Paris’ cabaret scene rose to prominence on the strength of its variety shows in the late 19th century. The lifting of restrictions on private theater enterprises in 1867 led to a boom in new venues, including Le Chat Noir (whose poster art outlived the cabaret itself) and the Moulin Rouge in the bohemian Montmartre district.

The Paris of that era features extensively in “Féerie” at the Moulin Rouge and “Paris Merveilles” at the Lido, lending both a nostalgic feel. “Paris Merveilles” (directed by Franco Dragone) has a mime as a recurrent character, projections of the city’s hallmarks, and topless women waving the tricolor flag. The Moulin Rouge has painstakingly preserved its auditorium’s elegant belle-epoque features, and “Féerie” refers to Toulouse-Lautrec, who once painted the cabaret.

The Moulin Rouge also banks on its most famous act, the French cancan, first performed at the venue in 1889, the year it opened. The high-kicking dance, which originated at 19th-century popular balls, is given pride of place in “Féerie.” The dancers, clad in the colors of France’s flag, delivered it with flair on a recent night. (The Lido’s lukewarm attempt paled by comparison.)

Since the tableaux in “Féerie” and “Paris Merveilles” are only loosely strung together, with specialty acts ranging from contortionists to ice skaters in between, the directors allow themselves plenty of geographic and choreographic license. At the Moulin Rouge, one tableau ostensibly set in Indonesia brings together performers dressed as panthers, masked goddesses, warriors and even a Medusa of sorts. At the end, a pool is raised from under the stage, and a woman dives in with the aforementioned pythons.

Ballet is another inspiration: In a “Swan Lake"-style scene at the Lido, dancers wore fake swans on their heads and traipsed around in tutus artfully designed to showcase their G-strings.

And here lies a common theme of these revues: women’s bodies. The current female ensembles — tall, thin, almost uniformly white — were modeled in part on the Ziegfeld Follies’ American chorus girls, who became popular in the 1910s and 1920s. They have heirs in New York in the Rockettes, but unlike them, Paris’ “girls” (as they are called in French) aren’t just famous for their legs: They are also expected to perform topless for much of the show. Now, there is a long history of artful stripping on the Paris stage. Nor is this shocking in the current theater world, where nudity is commonplace. There is no denying, however, that under the guise of glorifying the mythical “Parisian woman,” cabarets objectify women, and women only: The much smaller male ensembles, at the Lido and the Moulin Rouge, aren’t required to appear in jockstraps. The one story line running through “Paris Merveilles” features a shy, bespectacled girl who transforms into a bodysuit-wearing swan, triumphantly removing her glasses in the final scene.

There are tableaux that show their female performers for the highly trained dancers they are, while others treat them as mere decoration. At the Lido, a number of scenes are more pageantry than dance, with awkwardly performed movement and fixed smiles (in 1994, the venue’s director charmingly referred to some of his female performers as “portmanteaux” or “coat racks”). The Moulin Rouge ensemble was more spirited, with stronger, more varied choreography, credited to Benoît-Swan Pouffer, a former director of the now-defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York.

You might expect the Crazy Horse — a cabaret trading in overtly erotic entertainment — to be the worst offender. On the contrary, its current revue, “Totally Crazy!,” turns out to be the finest performers’ showcase.

In practical terms, the smaller, more intimate Crazy Horse, established in 1951, is a different type of cabaret: It serves only drinks, and its tables are very close to the stage, which is barely the height of the dancers in heels. It is also less in thrall to touristic notions of Paris, although the Crazy Horse has its own legends. Its founder, Alain Bernardin, who died in 1994, often required his dancers to have plastic surgery, he once explained on television; in the 1960s, he staged a number in which a German dancer performed with her modesty protected only by a swastika.

There are few such overt references in “Totally Crazy!,” mercifully. New in 2017 and directed by Stéphane Jarny, the revue brings together what the Crazy Horse calls its “most iconic acts” from over the years. There is the historical opener, “God Save Our Bareskin,” in which 12 dancers wear bearskin hats and little else, with pom-poms bouncing over their identical bottoms; “But I Am a Good Girl,” a solo number once reprised by Christina Aguilera; and excerpts from revues directed by French choreographer Philippe Decouflé and lingerie designer Chantal Thomass, among others.

As a result, the evening, introduced by a larger-than-life master of ceremonies, Brian Scott Bagley, is a mishmash of styles but strikes a good balance between history and novelty. Some character-driven songs are cringe-worthy for feminists in the audience — the Lolita character singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the Femme Fatale “looking for a millionaire” — but the dancers perform them with irresistible, Broadway-style energy. At other times, the beautifully lit tableaux highlight the performers’ stagecraft and dance abilities. Nahia Vigorosa (the dancers all use stage names) brings raw power and projection to “Lay Laser Lay,” a solo number on a rotating wheel; in “Striptease-Moi,” Daizy Blu and Lolita Kiss-Curl recreate a teasing, gender-bending encounter, with one dressed as a man.

While there is no escaping the male gaze in this context, the Crazy “girls” move with agency and purpose. There is talent aplenty attached to these cabarets, and yet creativity appears to be in short supply. What would 21st-century theater direction look like in a revue? Is it even feasible? The answer may be no, but at least tourists would find a more forward-looking gateway to Paris.

“Féerie.” Directed by Doris Haug and Ruggero Angeletti. Moulin-Rouge, Paris.
“Paris Merveilles.” Directed by Franco Dragone. Le Lido, Paris.
“Totally Crazy!” Directed by Stéphane Jarny. Crazy Horse, Paris.

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